Taking an Integrative Approach to Understanding Emotions and Clinical Disorders

This is a photo of a person sitting on the floor.Many clinical psychological disorders, including anxiety and depression, are characterized by unhealthy, turbulent, or otherwise maladaptive emotions. Yet the link between emotion and mental illness has typically been investigated separately from basic research on emotion and emotional experience.

A Special Series on Emotions and Psychopathology in the new issue of Clinical Psychological Science aims to link these two areas of investigation, bringing the most recent research from affective science to bear on the ways that clinicians and researchers think about, diagnose, and treat clinical disorders.

“[C]linical researchers are now beginning to draw on the full range of concepts and methods from affective science to better understand the emotional processes that lie at the heart of a wide range of psychopathologies and to develop emotion-targeted interventions,” write psychological scientist Jessica Tracy of the University of British Columbia and colleagues in their introduction to the section.

“The articles in this special series all provide examples of this new trend; the researchers represented here have moved past historical limitations to demonstrate the ways in which many of the methods and major findings from affective science can inform psychopathology theory and theory testing,” Tracy and colleagues write.

Contributors to the special series describe emotions as multifaceted and complex, driven by biological and cognitive mechanisms that interact and operate at various levels.

As such, the articles survey a diverse range of innovative measures – such as eyeblink reflex, skin conductance, pupil diameter, and viewing time – that can be used in conjunction with self-report to gain more accurate and complete insight into different dimensions of emotion and emotion regulation, including valence (i.e., positive or negative) and arousal.

The series contributors also highlight important methodological issues, such as the need to understand the time course of emotional experiences and the importance of investigating different types of emotional regulation.

And they emphasize the need to elucidate patterns of emotion dysregulation that are specific to certain disorders in order to develop effective treatments.

“In all cases, these researchers suggest that by examining the emotional process at the root of a particular psychological disorder, treatments can be targeted to the source of the problem,” Tracy and colleagues write.

“Because emotions encompass feelings, thoughts, physiology, and behavior, changing one’s emotion can have widespread downstream consequences relevant to the symptoms of a given disorder. As a result, our emphasis on emotions in psychopathology allows for not only more complex and nuanced theory building but also potential new interventions,” they conclude.

All of the articles included in the Special Series on Emotion and Psychopathology published in the July 2014 issue of Clinical Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, are available free to the public.

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